We've grown up with Superman. We've followed his adventures in the comics and on screens small and large for a long, long time — 80 years, in fact. But no one has devoted as much thought to the Man of Steel (and to Superboy, too) as the many actors who've played him over the years, those who've donned the cape, tapped away at that Daily Planet typewriter, or found just the right tone for both Clark's and Kal-El's voice.
Over the course of this week we're going to be talking a lot to the members of this elite group, including Brandon Routh (Superman Returns), Tom Welling (Smallville), and Dean Cain (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman), plus several Supes from previous generations. These guys have a lot of memories and, as you'll see, a lot of stories, too. What do they think about this storied and hallowed role? How have Superman portrayals evolved through different eras, and why? Are any of the actors actually friends? What kind of adventures have they had in real life? We may not have X-Ray Vision, but we hope over the course of this oral history to provide a penetrating look at what it takes to embody such an iconic character.
Here's one thing that many of them had in common: They found it terrifying.
Kal-El, Superboy, Clark Kent, Superman — no matter the version of this classic character an actor plays, there's more to the job than just stepping into the iconic tights. First, you have to confront the idea of Superman, mythic figure. "He embodies everything that a lot of people aspire to," says actor George Newbern, who started voicing the part in 2001's animated series Justice League. "He's the ultimate Jesus figure — fully man, fully god." Maybe not the easiest role to wrap your head around. How can a mere mortal live up to that?
"You wonder, 'What if they made a mistake in casting me?'" Newbern says. "I felt like the register of my voice was a little too high."
"You just feel like an imposter," says James Denton, who voiced Superman in the animated All-Star Superman film. "When you hear your voice coming out of Superman's face, it's weird. I've never heard Superman sound so much like a wimp!"
Kal-El is "a little lost," says Brandon Routh, who starred in the one-off 2006 film Superman Returns. Routh says he felt like an imposter playing Supes as well – but only after the movie was released. "That's probably closely related to the fact that we never made a sequel," he says. "Even though the film was largely well-reviewed, it didn't make the money that would propel it toward a sequel." (Even though it ended up grossing some $390 million worldwide).
"I was honored to play Superman," Routh says. "I wanted to represent Chris, and also represent the people who had been fans of Superman for so long. I wanted to do justice to the character -- not only Chris' version, but all the other iterations of Superman, and hopefully all those various aspects of Superman that people were looking for." He laughs. "That's kind of an impossible task."
For some actors, having an image of the character from the comics makes it more intimidating. Beau Weaver, who voiced the part in the 1988 animated television series Superman, received a Superman suit for Christmas when he was five years old – and was crestfallen to learn that it wouldn't actually make him fly. "I was crushed," Weaver says. "I am quite certain that I would have climbed up to the top of the roof and jumped off otherwise."
For others, they struggle to measure up to what some consider the most enduring performance – the Man of Steel played by Christopher Reeve in a series of films that began in 1978. Reeve pretty much owned the role over the course of his four Superman movies, and actors following him have to make a choice — are they going to copy what Reeve did, or try a radical departure?
For the mid-'90s television series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Dean Cain was able to make a splash by reversing the usual operating principle by making Clark Kent the main character, Superman merely his disguise. As such, Cain didn't have to struggle against the Reeve legacy.
But Superboy, a television show which aired between 1988 and1992, didn't have that luxury. Even though the focus was on a younger version of Clark (not as a little kid, actually, but a strapping young man), the actors felt pressure to follow Reeve's example.
When actor John Newton screen-tested for the role, "they had me put on Christopher Reeve's actual costume," he says. "That was so intimidating -- it had so much history with it."
Actor Gerard Christopher, who replaced Newton as Superboy in the series' second season, says he tried to "reverse-engineer" the part. "I did it the way Chris Reeve might have done it," Christopher says. "I was modeling it after him. I thought, 'If Chris were younger, how would he do this as a college-aged kid?'"
It can give an actor a case of whiplash trying to figure out which way to go – should he give the character more resonance and gravitas, or play against type as Reeve did? Beau Weaver found that he got conflicting notes from directors – use Reeve in mind, but then "butch it up." "We need Superman to be a little more super," one director told him. "I felt like a big, fat imposter," Weaver says. "I felt like someone dressed up in a Superman suit that didn't quite fit."
But the key was to use that – imagine how Superman himself would have felt. "He was a stranger in a strange land who didn't quite fit it," Weaver says. "He felt like an imposter, and in fact, he was."